Sunday, October 26, 2014

School Improvement Succeeds only with Shared Leadership: A Field-Tested Blueprint

Matching the Essential Components of School Improvement with a School-level Committee Structure that Facilitates Shared Leadership and Staff/Student Success

   All schools need to improve. . . to look at their current status and outcomes, and move to the next level of excellence.  Some schools have been mired in “failure”. . . or at least failure as defined only by the fact that their students are not achieving academic proficiency based on a single annual high-stakes test (a definition of “success” that we disagree with).

   Regardless. . .with all of the discussion about school improvement— especially at the federal level— a critical missing element is shared leadership.  Below, we discuss one element of shared leadership by describing a practical blueprint for school-level committees.  Implemented by us in thousands of schools nationwide, this blueprint is adapted to the size and complexity of the school (elementary through secondary), but it is accompanied by the following basic principles:

   **  All instructional staff are on at least one school-level committee.

   **  Every committee is co-chaired by instructional staff members (administrators are ex officio to all committees), and the co-chairs form the core of the School Leadership Team.

   **  Every committee (except the early intervention Student Assistance Team) has at least one representative from each grade-level or instructional team, along with representatives from other support personnel groups.

   **  Every committee has an annually-written “Mission, Roles, Goals, and Function” document— that is shared with other committees to ensure coordination and collaboration, and whose goals are reflected in the school’s School Improvement Plan.

   **  Every committee meets at least monthly, meetings are posted in the school’s Master Calendar, meetings have explicit agendas and outcomes, meeting minutes are taken and publicly posted, and committees evaluate their progress on a quarterly basis with data.
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How are School-level Committees Conceptualized?

   At least within the blueprint, the school-level committee structure should mirror the components that help schools to be organizationally successful.  This is simply good business.  Critically, if you look at any of the national school improvement groups, you will see the following components almost consistently reflected:

   **  Strategic Planning and Organizational Development
   **  Staff Cohesion, Consultation, Shared Leadership, Teaming, and Effective Group Process
   **  Professional Development, Supervision, Coaching, Accountability, and Staff Evaluation
   **  Positive Academic Instruction, Supports, Services, and Interventions
   **  Positive Behavioral/Social, Emotional, and Behavioral Instruction, Supports, Services, and Interventions
   **  Multi-tiered Response-to-Instruction and Intervention Supports and Pupil Services
   **  Community and Family Involvement and Outreach
   **  Progress Monitoring, Assessment and Evaluation, and Data-based Decision-Making

   These school improvement components, then, are reflected in the School-level Committee Structure blueprint as follows:

   **  The School Leadership Team (SLT)
   **  The Curriculum and Instruction (C&I) Committee
   **  The School Discipline/Climate (or PBIS) Committee
   **  The Professional Development/Staff Support and Mentoring Committee
   **  The Community and Family Outreach Committee
   **  The Multi-tiered Early Intervention School Assistance Team (SAT)
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A Brief Description of the School-level Committees

   Briefly, each committee has the following basic responsibilities:

   **  The School Leadership Team (SLT) coordinates and guides all of the shared leadership planning and implementation processes in a school, overseeing the activities of the five other committees and the grade-level and/or instructional teams. 

   **  The Curriculum and Instruction (C&I) Committee facilitates the development and integration of the school’s academic curricula with (a) effective classroom instruction, (b) progress monitoring, (c) formative and summative evaluation, and (d) the use of student-centered remediation, accommodation, modification, assistive supports, and curriculum-based intervention.

   **  The School Discipline/Climate (or PBIS) Committee oversees the activities and instruction that result in (a) positive and safe school and classroom climates and interactions; (b) effective positive discipline and classroom/behavior management approaches; (c) students’ learning and demonstrating interpersonal, social problem-solving, conflict prevention and resolution, and emotional coping skills; (d) effective school safety and crisis preparation practices; and (e) strategic or intensive services, supports, and strategies (including those involving school-based mental health) for students with critical social, emotional, or behavioral needs.

   **  The Professional Development/Staff Support and Mentoring Committee oversees, facilitates, and evaluates the school’s professional development (PD), and formal and informal collegial supervision and support activities.  These activities help all staff feel professionally and personally connected to the school and its continuous improvement processes, as well as help instructional staff to be successful relative to the district’s teacher evaluation system.

   **  The Community and Family Outreach Committee focuses on establishing and sustaining the collaborative approaches needed to address students’ academic and social, emotional, or behavioral needs in home or community settings, and to increase the support, involvement, and leadership of parents, community agencies, and other organizations in accomplishing the school’s mission and goals.   

   **  The Multi-tiered Early Intervention School Assistance Team (SAT) is the school-level committee that facilitates the use of the functional assessment, data-based problem-solving processes that identify the strategic or intensive instructional or intervention services, supports, strategies, or programs needed, academically and/or behaviorally, by students who are not responding to effective classroom instruction or behavior management.  Meeting on a weekly basis to process new and track existing cases, the SAT team consists of the strongest academic and behavioral assessment and intervention specialists in or available to the school, who work with the teacher (or teaching team) that needs to discuss specific students of concern. 
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Summary and Free Follow-Up Resources

   Critically, some schools have too many committees or too few committees.  When there are too many committees, there is a risk that some committees are working independently, redundantly, or at cross-purposes.  When there are too few committees, there is a risk that some staff have too many responsibilities and are at-risk for burn-out, or that other staff are unhappy that their viewpoints are not requested or reflected.  In either case, the success of the business (that is, the school) is dependent on people working collaboratively— with both effectiveness and efficiency.

   Clearly, shared leadership is essential for ongoing and continuously effective school improvement processes— whether you have an exceptional school or a school identified as needing improvement by your state through the ESEA process.  

   For more information, please click on the link below for a free technical assistance paper on “Developing an Effective School-level Committee Structure.” 

[CLICK HERE and look at the second entry on this web-page]

     In addition, feel free to watch the webinar below that was delivered to a national audience interested in school improvement and strategic planning. 

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   As always, I hope that some of the ideas above resonate with you.  Please accept my best wishes as you continue to provide the services and supports that all of your students need. Have a GREAT week !!!


Saturday, October 11, 2014

Another Federal Push… What’s the Deal with Trauma Sensitive Schools?

Why Schools Can't Become Trauma-Sensitive Unless They Simultaneously Address Bullying, Exposure to Violence, Persistent Academic Failure, and Other Student Mental Health Issues 

   I hope you are doing well as we move into Fall and the end of the first quarter of the year.

   Today’s message will carry somewhat of a “mixed message.”  I am going to discuss trauma, its impact on students in schools, and the importance of implementing approaches that help these students to succeed in school. 

   At the same time, I am going to emphasize that many of the approaches needed for these students are no different than other (or the same) students who have experienced significant, negative home or life events; teasing or bullying; persistent academic failure and frustration; social rejection, aggression, or isolation; or acute or chronic exposure to violence.

   Finally, I am issuing a warning that an increased emphasis on “Trauma-Sensitive Schools” and “Trauma-Informed Practices” by the federal government and some of its funded national Technical Assistance centers has already created yet another “cottage industry” of companies, consultants, and “specialized trainings” in this area. 

   My concerns are rooted in my attendance at the National School-Based Mental Health Conference last month in Pittsburgh.  I have attended (and presented at) these conferences for at least a decade, and it was notable that- - at the 2013 Conference- - there were virtually no conference sessions on trauma-sensitive or –informed practices.  And yet, suddenly, at last month’s Conference, there were ten or more sessions discussing this topic.

   Again, I am not saying that this is not an important topic and/or mental health/behavioral concern.  However, I am cautioning that many of these sessions were recommending “trauma-specific” treatments or programs that have not been field-tested or validated in schools or with large numbers of students.  And yet, here they are being advocated for at a major national conference.

Critically, virtually all of these “trauma-sensitive or -informed” trainings:

   *  Are not needed at the Tier 1/Prevention or even Tier 2/Strategic Intervention levels of social, emotional, and behavioral support if a school has a sound school-wide program in this area- - one that focuses on students’ social competency and self-management skills.

   *  Have not (once again) been field-tested nor demonstrated their short- or long-term success or their unique need in actually helping students to cope with significant levels of trauma (especially in the absence of other mental health supports).

   *  Add yet another specialized responsibility to our teachers’ “plates” that they are unprepared to fully address, and that they should not need to address- - once again, if the school had sound Tier I/Positive Behavioral Support System approaches in place.
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The Bottom Line is that:

   *  We need to prepare and support all teachers in how to create positive, differentiated, and success-oriented classrooms that teach students the academic and social, emotional, and behavioral skills that they need to be successful. 

   *  These latter skills need to focus on teaching students to demonstrate and apply interpersonal, social problem-solving, conflict prevention and resolution, and emotional coping skills.  As taught, these skills need to be embedded into the academic activities where students need to collaborate and work together, and into students’ social and interpersonal individual and group activities and interactions.

   *  These skills need to be explicitly applied to the areas of behavioral health, bullying prevention, truancy and dropout prevention and reduction, PBIS and positive approaches to discipline, and social and emotional learning.

   *  Schools and districts need to have skilled mental health specialists (typically school psychologists and clinical social workers) who know the cognitive-behavioral and emotional coping interventions to help those students who need more intensive social-behavioral services and supports.
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How Did this All Start ?

   The most-recent focus on trauma began when a series of studies were published in the late 2000s that related to the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study, research that originated with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC;, and Kaiser Permanente's Health Appraisal Clinic in San Diego.  In one of the largest investigations ever conducted to assess the relationship between ten specific childhood experiences and their later-life health and well-being, information was collected from patients who were undergoing comprehensive physical examinations at more than 17,000 health maintenance organizations.

   The ten home or family experiences covered the first 18 years of the respondents’ lives (the survey does not discriminate when the events occurred), and the experiences were rated “Yes” or “No” relative to whether they ever occurred- - even once.  The experiences involved (a) parental or adult emotional abuse or physical threats, physical aggression, sexual touching, sexual penetration; (b) parental drug abuse, separation or divorce, mental illness, or incarceration; and (c) times where the respondent did not feel loved or supported or protected, did not have clean clothes or supervision, or did not have medical care when needed.

   According to the CDC’s website, “the ACE Study suggests that certain experiences are major risk factors for the leading causes of illness and death as well as poor quality of life in the United States. It is critical to understand how some of the worst health and social problems in our nation can arise as a consequence of adverse childhood experiences.  Realizing these connections is likely to improve efforts towards prevention and recovery.”

Comment.  Without minimizing the real impacts of these individual and cumulative life events, and acknowledging the burgeoning research in this area, it is important to recognize that:

   *  Most of the research in this area is correlational- - these ten home and family life events during childhood or adolescent do not necessarily cause adults to have health and/or social problems.  All we know is that adults with these problems, retrospectively, had a higher number of the ACE events.

Moreover, we cannot generalize the results of data from thousands of adults to predict the impact of these events on a single adult- - or even a single child or adolescent.

   *  For an individual student, the intensity of the ten events may be more predictive of the cited adult problems than the number of the events.  Study participants did not rate the intensity of the events- - they only reported, from their perspectives, whether the events occurred or did not occur. 

   *  For an individual student, the age when the one or more events occurred, and their emotional coping skills and/or the presence of external support systems may be more predictive of the impact of the events than their actual number.

   *  As noted above, there are other home, community, and school events (e.g., bullying, exposure to violence, the impact of a disability) that were not on the ACE that may be as predictive to adults’ (and students’) health and social status.
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The Bottom Line is that schools need to:

   *  Routinely screen all students for social, emotional, and/or behavioral concerns.  However, we need to recognize that the best screeners are classroom teachers who have positive relationships with their students, are tuned in to them as individuals, and are able to recognize when they are struggling in these areas.

   *  Have early intervention teams (e.g., Student Assistance Teams, Student Services Teams) who include the best academic and behavioral professionals in or available to the school- - who then work with the school staff, parents/guardians, and the student him/herself to determine the “root causes” underlying the social, emotional, and/or behavioral concerns.

   *  Have professionals skilled in social, emotional, and behavioral interventions, and (when needed) additional mental health response systems so that the services, supports, strategies, and/or programs needed to address the underlying causes of a student’s challenges can be successfully addressed. 

Significantly, this “system” may involve school-based or school-linked community mental health professionals- - especially when the school does not have the depth of expertise needed, or when the student needs intensive supports at that level.
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Where Has This Gone ?

   Somewhat parallel to the ACE research has been work published in 2005 and then 2013 by the Massachusetts Advocates for Children (MAC).  Focusing first on the policies needed to “Help Traumatized Children Learn,” and then to create “Trauma-Sensitive Schools,” the MAC’s work has become embedded in legislative action in Massachusetts that established (FY2014) a Safe and Supportive Schools Grant Program.  The grant money is to help schools to create and implement plans to help establish “Safe and Supportive School Environments.”

   Significantly, the legislative act defined a “Safe and Supportive School Environment” as:

“A safe, positive, healthy and inclusive whole-school learning environment that (i) enables students to develop positive relationships with adults and peers, regulate their emotions and behavior, achieve academic and non-academic success in school and maintain physical and psychological health and well-being; and (ii) integrates services and aligns initiatives that promote students’ behavioral health, including social and emotional learning, bullying prevention, trauma sensitivity, dropout prevention, truancy reduction, children’s mental health, the education of foster care and homeless youth, the inclusion of students with disabilities, positive behavioral approaches that reduce suspensions and expulsions and other similar initiatives.”

   In the 2013 document, the MAC emphasized the importance of aligning all of the initiatives above together because “the same legal and policy conditions necessary for trauma sensitivity are also necessary for a wide range of other important education reform initiatives.”
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Summary and Conclusions

   Many of the social, emotional, and behavioral reactions, responses, and needs that students have when they experience significant, negative home or life events; teasing or bullying; persistent academic failure and frustration; social rejection, aggression, or isolation; or acute or chronic exposure to violence coexist.  Significantly, then, it makes no sense (nor is it realistic relative to teachers, time, and training) to implement separate, discrete prevention and early response programs for what appear to be somewhat different situations.

   We know that there are five components needed in a (Tier I) prevention and early intervention approach to supporting all students- - especially those students experiencing the life and social circumstances above.  These are:

   *  Positive school and classroom climates and relationships
   *  Identifying and teaching core, needed interpersonal, conflict prevention and resolution, social problem-solving, and emotional coping skills
   *  Establishing a behavioral accountability system and holding students accountable to using their social, emotional, and behavioral skills
   *  Maintaining consistency throughout the process
   *  Applying the process to all settings, while encouraging the different student peer groups in a school to become full partners in supporting the process

   Beyond this, schools and districts need a continuum of services, supports, strategies, and programs that provide interventions and mental health supports to students (and families) in greater need.

   We have got to work together- - effectively and efficiently- - in order to establish these system, school, staff, and student approaches.  We should not be swayed by companies, consultants, or
specialized training approaches that have not been field-tested or validated in schools or with large numbers of students, and that take our attention away from the “common core” of components that help create truly safe and support school environments.

   I hope that some of the ideas above resonate with you.  Please accept my best wishes as you continue to provide the services and supports that all of your students need. Have a GREAT week !!!